Grief camp provides children with emotional outlets through arts and activities

Flower pots painted by children at the Jemicy School Saturday morning were adorned with colors reflecting their makers’ emotions. Jyaire, 10, decorated his pot with rainbow colors and glitter; 13-year-old Rene painted his red and blue; and Jediah, 12, painted two pots with themes from Star Wars and Jurassic Park.

The craft was one in a series of weekend activities designed to help the children cope with the deaths of family members and friends close to them.

“We based the pots on the people that we lost,” Jyaire said.

Starting Saturday, 25 elementary and middle school-aged children came to Jemicy’s Upper School in Owings Mills for Camp Kangaroo, a three-day grief camp for children who have lost a loved one within the last two years. It’s an annual program of Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, and this weekend marked the fourth year the camp has been held in Maryland.

In three small groups, the campers spent sessions painting, making music, practicing mindful meditation and playing, using each activity to identify and normalize emotions surrounding their loss and learning how to incorporate coping mechanisms in their lives.

“It loosely follows [William] Worden’s tasks of grieving, which are to accept the finality of the loss and incorporate it into your life and move forward and honor the emotions that you have,” said Anne Hansen, senior director of patient experience and staff development for Seasons Hospice. “Children don’t often realize like adults do that other people die and we’re all grieving at some point in our lives.”

Some children at the free camp lost grandparents, parents or siblings; some lost friends; others were returning to the camp after multiple deaths in their families.

The Sun has omitted the children’s last names to protect their privacy.

“Children don’t have a whole lot of outlets to be able to deal with issues of death and loss, and often times we sugarcoat it,” said the Rev. Brandon Brewer, an associate team director and chaplain with Seasons Hospice. “This is an opportunity for them to really explore their thoughts, their feelings, but also gain knowledge and understanding that other children are experiencing very similar types of losses.”

Many of the kids arrived to the camp Saturday morning nervous, Hansen said. But by the time the campers converged on the cafeteria for lunch, Hansen noticed they were livelier. She expects them to open up more by the end of camp.

“The transformation is incredible. We’ve got these shy kids who don’t really know what they’re doing here, they don’t really want to talk about it,” Hansen said. “But we infuse it with fun and normalization and just unconditional positive regard.”

Anna Smolensky, a hospice care consultant for Seasons, greeted the kids in a head-to-toe kangaroo costume. She was one of about 30 volunteers and staff supervising the camp.

“Every person that volunteers, we get a different connection with the kids, and that connection is important because we hopefully impact the kids,” she said.

On Sunday, the children’s parents will participate in a day-long session led by Brewer, who will go over how parents and children can heal together while grieving. Starting conversations is an important factor, he said.

”When children work on different projects and activities, they love being able to explain it and show it off, and so if it’s specific to what they’re experiencing you get to hear a lot about what they’re going through and how they’re processing things,” Brewer said.

Some of the projects at Camp Kangaroo, like the painted flower pots, are designed to do just that. Parents at the camp will plant amaryllis bulbs in the pots their children painted on Sunday, and they’ll take the flowers home to watch them grow.

“It’s a way in which they actually come together and it creates an amazing conversation piece: ‘Tell me about what, you know, you put here.’ And then, ‘Now we get to watch this grow together,’” Brewer said. “And that’s how we want to leave them is being able to grow together through this experience of grief and bereavement.”

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